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Wood heater makers push back against tighter pollution rules

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Darwin Woods
Darwin Woods stokes a fire in the wood-burning stove that he uses to heat both water and his home.
L.G. Patterson | AP 2015

Minnesota-based Central Boiler has worked for years to cut the air pollution generated by its products. It met 2015 Environmental Protection Agency standards, which reduced fine particle emissions by as much as 90 percent.

But the company, the nation's largest maker of wood-fired home boilers, believes the next proposed federal standard — eliminating two-thirds of remaining pollutants in the wood smoke — is too much, too soon and executives are pushing back along with much of the woodstove and wood boiler business.

Health and environmental experts say the tighter standards are needed and that the proposed standard is not a big reach given the health concerns. The EPA says the microscopic particles in the smoke are the greatest health threat from wood stove emissions. They can cause bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma, or other serious respiratory diseases, and aggravate chronic heart and lung disease.

The industry, though, has the ear of Congress. The manufacturers won support from Minnesota DFL U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, who represents Greenbush-based Central Boiler. He sponsored legislation to delay for three years rules that were set to take effect in 2020. The bill recently passed the U.S House.

"The new furnaces will be more efficient," said John Crouch, director of public affairs for the Hearth Patio and Barbecue Association, a national trade group. "But there's a limit to how much all of us are willing to pay for greater efficiency and pollution reduction."

Wood stoves have been regulated for decades, but emission standards for outdoor wood boilers — which heat water that's then piped indoors to heat a home — and indoor wood furnaces were first imposed in 2015. Those standards significantly reduced fine particle pollution from new wood burners. Officials saw the 2020 rules as the next logical step.

But the Hearth Patio and Barbecue Association sued the EPA over the new rules and in a court filing the agency asked to put the suit on hold while the agency revisits the rules. The agency plans to examine testing procedures and examine other concerns raised by the industry.

The industry says consumer costs will jump if the proposed emission rules take effect. Industry officials won't put a dollar figure to it, citing the variation among manufacturers.

Central Boiler, though, says the higher standard could tack on at least $1,000 to $1,500 to the cost of a unit. The company's single residence models run from $5,500 to about $10,000 currently.

"It gains more time for adequate testing by manufacturers to help come to the market with products that will be there. So that amount of time that's needed to develop and to test that, extra time is really important," said Central Boiler vice president Rodney Tollefson.

Tollefson also supports a revised testing program for new heaters. He says emission testing in Europe more closely mimics actual conditions consumers experience.

The American Lung Association opposes any delay in emission standards.

"A three-year delay is going to continue the problem further. There's already a lot of old stock installed in homes right now and the sooner we can get cleaner burning wood stoves into homes the sooner we'll start cleaning up the air quality," said Robert Moffitt, communications director with the American Lung Association of Minnesota.

The EPA plans to issue a proposed new rule to address industry concerns about residential wood heater emissions this spring for public comment.

But even if it helps Central Boiler in northwestern Minnesota, a delay or rollback of emission standards would be bad news for a northeastern Minnesota company.

Lamppa Manufacturing is betting its future on the new emission standards. The small company in Tower, Minn., builds indoor wood furnaces that are already far cleaner than the new emission standards.

The company invested a lot of time and money to develop the first wood furnace in the country to meet EPA 2020 standards and expected that would give it an edge in the market, said general manager Dale Horihan.

"Now, if they go ahead and back these rules off, it's really not fair," said Horihan. "These manufacturers have had seven years to perfect and meet this new requirement. And now they're asking for two or three years on top of that."

The issue is confusing because there are many types of wood-burning heaters, and all have different emission challenges.

The largest reduction in pollution from new standards comes from wood-burning boilers and wood furnaces.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says residential wood-burning appliances contributed 31 percent of fine particle emissions in 2014, the latest year for which data is available.

There has been a program in northeast Minnesota to help people replace old wood burners with more efficient models, though there's no statewide wood stove replacement incentive program.

While residential wood heat is more prevalent in rural areas of Minnesota, recreational burning is more common in the Twin Cities. Those open fires have no emission standards and can cause high levels of air pollution in a neighborhood.

The new regulations won't have much practical effect on air pollution unless people buy the cleaner stoves. And wood stoves tend to last a long time, so there are thousands of unregulated, inefficient wood heaters still in use.

"It's not a factory that we're regulating. But it's this community neighborhood source of air pollution," said Minnesota Pollution Control Agency research scientist Lisa Herschberger. "This pollution is emitted very near the ground. So, this is very close to where peoples' breathing zones are."